Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend

Speakers: Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist known for her popular explanation of scientific research.

Summary

Kelly has been treating stress as a disease that makes people sick, but has now changed her tune. A study assessed people’s feelings of stress, their attitude towards stress, and correlated against public death records. The people most likely to die were more stressed, but they also believed that stress was harmful to their health. People who were highly stressed but didn’t believe it was harmful were the least likely group to die. The study shows it isn’t stress that kills people, it’s the belief that stress is harmful. By reshaping how you think about stress, you can retool your body’s response.

When stressed, your heart beats faster, you breathe faster, and you’ll break out into a sweat. Normally we’d view these as signs that you’re not coping well, but people could also be taught that your body is preparing for action. By pumping more blood and breathing more you are preparing for something difficult, and ready to take on any challenge.

The harmful part of stress is a restriction of blood vessels, which is associated with cardiovascular disease. When people learn to see stress as a positive, the blood vessels do not constrict. The body response looks more like it is full of joy.

The next time you are stressed, think about it as your body preparing you for the challenge.

Stress makes you social. Octytocin is a neural hormone that primes you to strengthen relationships, and help your friends. It is also known as ‘the cuddle hormone’. But Oxytocin is also released as a stress response – to make you want to tell someone you are struggling. Oxytocin is also received in the heart, to strengthen, heal and protect it from the effects of stress. As you release more of this hormone by being stressed or helping others, you increase your stress resilience.

Another study looked at how stressed people were, how much time they had spent helping family / friends / their community, and correlated with public death records. For the general respondants, each major stressful crisis increased the risk of dying by 30%. However, people who spent time caring for others had no increase in risk of death due to stress.

The results of stress are changed by your mindset. When you think of stress as a benefit it acts that way. When you help others, you build resilience to stress.

When given a choice between a stressful job and one that is less stressful, Kelly recommends that you follow the one that gives you the most meaning, and trust yourself to handle the stress that results.

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